I’ve been thinking for a couple of days now about how to tell this story. No clarity has shown itself, so I’m left with the decision to just tell it like it is. The Trans Iowa or TI as it is known among racers and those close to the event, is very special and unlike any race I’ve ever been a part of. Even as you shuffle through your gear and make the final preparations minutes before the start you can feel that something is just different. There seems to be something in the air, a spirit all it’s own; that is TI.
Ironically, I was extremely poised at the start while I consciously thought about how these really were the final steps I would take before I was simply riding. I had played it all out in my mind a thousand times throughout the year, all the details were covered. I’d had plenty of time to think it through while my training partner, Charlie Farrow and I, completed a series of DBD (Death Before Dishonor) rides throughout the winter. We had a plan and it involved viewing ourselves as front runners in Trans Iowa Version Five. I really believe that having Amy, my wife, with me for this year’s race was a big part of my unusually calm demeanor. She has a way of letting me know that it’s all going to be o.k. and she instills in me a sense of confidence that I may not otherwise have. In other words, she’s relaxed, therefore I’m relaxed. It’s like she knows something I don’t. I guess she believes in me and when you’re toeing the line with 320 miles of gravel in front of you that really means a lot. We took a few pictures and had some hugs, then it was to the start line. Oh, one more thing, “be careful”, Amy said as we parted. She never forgets that part.
As Charlie and I lined up side by side it was all business. We had rehearsed this plan through and through. We knew how every step would unfold, at least we thought we did. Once underway I thought the pace was surprisingly fast. I did my best to stay near Charlie and toward the front, out of trouble. Soon enough the gravel proved to be loose and sketchy in places. More than one rider had near misses with another as the gravel would take a wheel and grind it into an unplanned direction. As we continued at a quickened pace things began to settle down and the twitchy movements of nervous riders seemed to subside. I began trying to introduce myself to some of the riders I’d heard so much about. Joe Gorilla, Charlie Parsons, Joe Meiser and George Vargas (all the way from California ). To my surprise some of these riders already knew me, one even went on to explain that he felt Charlie and I were serious contenders at this year’s TI. I found that comment interesting and flattering, but time would tell. I really felt like there were about 7 or 8 guys that this race could go to this year and I had included myself and my partner in that group.
Approximately two hours in I took note of the sudden changing conditions of the road. At times the gravel would suddenly change from quarter sized rocks to loose ping pong balls that tossed your bike any direction they wanted, not to mention caused frame jarring hits. It was these hits that I began to worry about, but being trapped in a crowd of riders moving at high speeds does not provide a lot of options for tactical maneuvering. Needless to say at about the 30 mile mark I felt and heard a hit ring through both my wheels, the frame of the bike, and through my bones. Immediately I knew there was a good chance one of, if not both my wheels, were going down. In a state of panic I called out to Charlie as if there was something he could do about it. “Charlie, I think my back wheel is going down”, I yelled. “What! NO!”, was his response. In an instant he shouted, “YES IT IS, GO GO!” while he violently pointed to the side of the road. I pulled over immediately with a sense of purpose and went to work on the tire. I got sick to my stomach as everyone in the main field rode past me as it felt like the TI was betraying me. My thoughts began to entertain the notion “that all was lost, everything I’d been through over the winter, would I ride the whole of the race alone?” I tried to switch my thinking; “Stay focused, it’s a long race, you WILL get back in it” began to reign supreme in my head.
I felt I had a fast change and I had a nice hard tire going back into the bike. I was on my way, low on the bars and pushing hard. Once the “dust” settled and I began to calm down I realized that here I was in the super bowl of my bike racing career playing catch up with the main field. How could this have happened? This would be Charlie’s race now, not mine, but there was still hope. All I needed to do was regain contact with the main field and surely there would be a strong rider willing to attack with me in an attempt to catch the leaders.
As I approached the first check point 40 miles from the start after riding alone for 10 miles I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw other riders milling about the town square of little Washington, IA. I screamed into the check point like my pants were on fire instantly asking about the main field and the leaders. Sensing my urgency the volunteers worked in concert to get me out of the check point as quickly as possible. It was nice to see a familiar face checking me in as well. A veteran of TI III (Cale) that I shared many miles with was manning the clip board and recording times. He told me that the two riders just rounding the corner on the other side of the square were the back of the main field, “Follow them”, he yelled as I rolled out. I was back! I couldn’t believe that I had caught them in 10 miles, now I needed to recover.
As I hooked back on I noticed the legendary Dave Pramann, repeat winner and record holder for the Arrowhead 135, Minnesota ‘s epic winter race, moving fluidly with the group. I briskly rode to his wheel, knowing that it was he that I needed to be with. Pramann had the killer instinct that I wanted to be a part of. I would not let him out of my sight. Little did I know that I would end up bonded to him for life (more on this later). As luck would have it my group of 10 to 15 riders quickly became confused among the twisting streets of Washington , IA. Soon we were lost. The minutes were slipping away and so were the leaders.
Reversing direction and returning to a point that coincided with our cue sheets re-oriented the group and we were back on course finally, but the question remained, “how much time had we lost to the leaders?” Nervously, I floated among the group checking the resolve of my competitors and trying to establish a connection with one or two of them that would be willing to launch an attack with me in an effort to get to the front. I had no takers and was even turned down by Pramann who flatly told me that he “wasn’t going to make a big push now”. My heart sank. I checked in with local strong boy, Jeremy Frye who finished an impressive 3rd place in this year’s Ragnarok 105, would he be willing to work with me? I sensed that he was more concerned about the long haul at this point. I would need to settle in, stay calm, and wait for situations to unfold that would play to my grand plan.
It wasn’t long before we approached the first “B” road (unmaintained access roads used by the farmers primarily to move between fields) and riders were spotted in the distance. Could it be? Were they the first two to “pop off” the lead group. After making contact with one of them I threw down a flurry of questions. It was cycling coach, ultra endurance rider, and veteran of Race Across America George Vargas from California . His report was that he had the leaders in sight up until a few minutes previous, but for him it was about conservation and he was content to let them ride away. However, this recent development seemed to cause a little jump in Pramann’s stroke and he began to bring the pace up. I quickly jumped on his wheel in an attempt to inspire the group, but they weren’t having it. Dave and I were taking the majority of the pulls while the others were sitting in and looking long term. We tried to explain to the group that if we could just work together we could bridge to the leaders, still no takers, save one.
A tall lanky strong man from Lincoln , NE began to take lengthy pulls at the front while Dave and I sat in, allowing him to drag us along while we conserved. Occasionally, we would move to the front to give him a break, but before long he’d be right back up there pulling for us and looking strong. I took a quick glance back to see why no one else would get involved and there it was, a tiny gap, maybe 50 feet. I shouted to Dave, “We’re getting a gap!” The pulls were shorter and harder, the gap began to grow, 100 feet, 100 yards, a quarter mile, a half mile… then they were gone!
The effort it took to separate from the main field in order to get the leaders in sight exhausted an enormous toll on me. I had been “on the rivet” for the second time in a short period and both attempts were lengthy. Needless to say I was teetering on the edge of being in serious trouble.
As we let off and were pulling into North English, approximately 55 miles from the start, there was talk in my group (Dave Pramaan, Lincoln, NE. and myself) of a quick stop at the general store in town to refit. I agreed with the stop, because honestly at this point any respite from what I had been experiencing for the last 2.5 hours was welcomed. As we rolled closer and crossed the highway I noticed a small congregation near the doorway of the store and there were bikes! I strained my eyes until I saw the familiar jersey. It was Charlie and he was with Joe Meiser, we had caught the leaders! My body released another shot of adrenaline as I came upon them refilling water bottles and getting organized.
Charlie’s eyes were like saucers when he saw me, “Eki”, he yelled, “It’s so good to see you!”. I inhaled a banana in front of Guitar Ted (race director) and started pleading with Charlie to depart the store immediately. Confused by my arrival, my partner started expressing the need to top of my fluids, I refused, conveying to him that I was good to go and we needed to get moving. I knew this was the break we needed in more ways than one.
Disorientated from being in a red lined state for so long I started to roll out of the parking lot in the wrong direction and was even considering relieving myself in a culvert next to the highway when Charlie yelled to me “Eki, this way”. I quickly regrouped and jumped on his wheel. Joe Meiser, Charlie Farrow, Dave Pramaan and Tim Ek were now the break away 4. The intensity ratcheted up as we began to exploit our lead. The three I was with seemed fresh while I toiled at the back, struggling on every climb to hold the wheel in front of me.
I was astonished at the ease in which they all seemed to float up the huge rollers that we would deal with for the next several hours. A pattern started to emerge. At the top of every climb I found myself at least 40 – 50 feet off the back of the group and out of the saddle trying to gain the wheel in front of me. How long could I keep this up before I was completely dropped and alone in the wind? I distinctly recall Charlie and Dave aggressively pointing at their back wheels behind their backs ordering me to get there. At times closing a distance of 3 feet seemed nearly impossible as I could not muster any more speed.
We, or I, was riding at my limit and our gap was growing. Slowly the doubt began to creep in as I questioned my membership with this group. I wondered if I had given too much to get to them and not staying “hooked on” would be the high price I paid. Had I mishandled this whole thing? Would I end up riding the majority of the Trans Iowa alone? I knew navigating alone would be a significant problem for me so I was determined to stay with them. Charlie kept encouraging me to ride 4th wheel and to never take a pull as he knew it would destroy me. I tried to remain positive and remind myself that this hurt tank I was in would pass and as soon as I could get some calories on board I’d bounce back.
The problem was getting calories in. I was so busy that I couldn’t take the time to eat or I’d lose the group and extended exposure in the wind would ruin me. It was when we hit the next “B” road that it all began to fall apart. I battled dizzy spells and the three strong men began to establish a large gap on me. It happened, I was dropped. I took that opportunity to force down another banana and a few gel packs. I simply could not climb with them. However, like a blessing from above, things began to turn in my favor. I bridged back to them and found respite in an easier pace. They were getting tired. I had done it! They were settling down and slipping into a more manageable rhythm.
It was time for me to focus on recovery. I began to eat at every opportunity and forced fluids in. I felt my body turning the corner, I began to take pulls at the front, and more importantly I began to try to show the group that I was still there and wouldn’t be going anywhere. I rode very close to them, tried to talk to them, I wanted them to know that I couldn’t be broken. The second check point was coming and we would be 151 miles into this monster. The group began discussing big meals and an extended session of reloading our bodies and our supplies. It was the break I needed. I just had to make it to the second check point with the leaders. What an accomplishment that would be!
We rolled into the convenience store at check point two to the sounds of volunteers yelling for us as it appeared we might ride by. The four of us feasted on whatever we felt would satisfy our cravings and provide us with the right kind of fuel for the next leg. Our spirits were lifted by the fact that the next leg would only be a short 66 mile jaunt to c.p. 3. It was during this break that I began to notice my partner, who is made of sinew and steel, looking unlike himself.
Charlie reported to me that all was not right with his insides and his stomach was giving him fits. I assured him that food would settle things down and he’d be fine. He was so quiet and keeping to himself that I was concerned. His energy was down and he looked worried, pensive. I brushed it off as my own demons were rearing their heads and I needed to focus on me.
The four of us were encouraged by Guitar Ted and his posses’ comments as we prepared to depart. They admired us as we said our good byes and turned our backs to them. I felt a strong pull from them and a part of me just wanted to turn back and stay in their comfort. It was not the case, we pushed on. As we left town I took the opportunity to ride up next to Joe Meiser and introduce myself, apologizing that it had taken 151 miles for me to formally let him know who I was. If memory serves me correctly I believe it went something like this, “Joe, I don’t think I’ve ever introduced myself, I’m Tim Ek”. His reply was simply, “I know”, he stuck his hand out, we shook, and I resumed my place in line. We had a job to do and lately it seemed that job was to keep up with Joe.
The hours and doldrums began to tick by and I became increasingly concerned about Charlie as I noticed him sitting 4th wheel a little more often and not looking as aggressive as before. I checked in with him and the report was dismal. I reminded him to stay in 4th and hide from the wind, we’d be turning soon and then we’d soar with the breeze at our backs. Finally, the turn had come and so would our respite, but it was not to be as Pramann surged and began to lift the pace. The intensity climbed once again as we exploited the tail wind and cruised north of 20 mph for extended periods of time.
Suddenly, without warning Charlie shouted “Eki what road are we on?” Clearly he wanted orientation to his cue sheets so he could begin navigating on his own. This was not a good sign. I slid back next to him and asked how it was going. The stallion was succumbing to a stomach that was getting the best of him. He said that he was in trouble and he wanted us to cut him loose. I refused, we’d been through too much and I owed him for he was a big reason I was back in the fold. I assured him that we would not let him drop off, I excitedly told him, “I’m going to talk to them”. I gave a few hard strokes and was up next to Dave and Joe, “Hey guys, Charlie’s found a spot of trouble, can we let off for a bit and see if he comes around?” Without hesitation the pace dropped into a soft pedal. I commanded Charlie to sit 4th wheel and to do what he could to not expose himself.
We rode this way for about 20 minutes before my final status report from him. I slid back to him and he looked my direction with glassy eyes and shook his head “no”, then looked to the gravel. It was over. We got him situated with his cue sheets and began to find our stride once more. Ten minutes later I stole a glance back and he was gone. Now there were three. Charlie’s absence had a profound effect on the group. It was as if we had to find out how we fit together all over again. It wouldn’t take long before we were moving like a finely tuned machine, with Joe out front, of course.
Our spirits were high as we arrived at c.p. 3. The knowledge of one more leg left was agreeing with us, but it was the night time leg. The three of us, being veterans of endurance events, knew that the night can be one’s worst enemy. Time seems to stand still in the dark, navigating is exponentially more difficult, and the mind can get the best of you. Guitar Ted and his crew were more than impressed by our arrival time and seemed somewhat alarmed that we were there.
I watched as they exchanged directions with each other, fetched cue sheets, and checked on our well being. Clearly, Joe seemed to be handling the ride very well thus far. On the other hand the miles were beginning to show on Dave and myself. We ate our food, refilled our fluids, and put on our “night clothes”. I recall talking with Dave about how we need to slow Joe down or the three of us are going to break up. Dave agreed and handed me half of his rice krispy bar explaining that he wasn’t going to eat it all. It was like he gave me a one thousand dollar bill. I don’t even like rice krispy bars, but at that moment it tasted like a delicacy.
As we left the c.p. I tried to soak up the positive words coming from the volunteer crew as they sincerely seemed impressed by the pace we were keeping. I rode with Joe as Dave got a jump out of the parking lot and felt relief when he mentioned that he wanted to soft pedal the first 20 miles of this 100 mile run to the finish. Was he human? Could it be that he was tired like I was? I tried to contain my joy as I caught up to Dave and exclaimed, “Dave, were going to soft pedal the first 20, so keep it super chill.” Well, it wasn’t long before Pramann took a pull and started putting the hurt to us when I yelled, “Dave keep it CHILL!”. I’m still not sure if Joe was mocking me or if he meant it, but he responded in kind, “Yeah Pramann, keep it Chill!” We all laughed for the first time in over 18 hours.
Notions of winning the 2009 Trans Iowa began to make fleeting dashes into my mind before I shoved them out. The way I figured it, crossing the line with these two iron men meant winning no matter what position I was in. At this point it felt like we had gone to battle together, we had started to bond and we were embarking on the night leg. The real union was yet to come.
Our lights began to take hold of the surroundings as true darkness descended. Worry over 100 more miles was sinking in. A “hondo” is still a very long ride and when you’ve already scored two consecutive the idea of a third seems absurd. I tried to break it into chunks in my mind. “Just get through the first 50, then the thrill of finishing will carry you home.”, I told myself. The deal to “soft pedal” came and went. Soon enough Joe had done the math and announced that there was the possibility of becoming the first TI finishers to ever break the 24 hour mark, not to mention the fastest time. “Wow!”, was my first thought, but then the hammer began to fall once more and the pace gained intensity. My legs had a kind of deep fatigue that seemed like cement had been shot into my quads, they were heavy and begging for the signals from the brain to stop. Breaks to relieve ourselves were coveted, because it meant stopping the pain even if it was for 30 seconds.
As we plowed through the night at a pace that was unheard of my head spun as I blindly went through the motions of following the wheel in front of me and occasionally sliding to the front to pull for as long as I could manage. The hills were no longer a concern as they simply became part of the madness that was where we lived at this time. I recall flying through small rollers and running 3rd wheel at approximately 1:30 a.m. when I noticed a glow off to my right. I stole a glance and observed a group of Iowa ‘s best sitting around a fire in a yard with cold brews in hand. A few at the party noticed what must have looked alien to them, 3 men dressed in tight cycling clothes, lights on their heads and numbers on their bikes, working pace off of each other and taking no prisoners. Soon the group fixated on us and rose to their feet realizing this must have been some type of race. They raised their drinks in the air and began yelling to us, “Go guys, Go!, Yeah!”. I lifted a hand off the bar in acknowledgement, but couldn’t divert too much attention, I was preoccupied at the time. I later played the scene over in my mind, how special it was, in a race with no fans, no pit crew, just us. It felt good in that fleeting moment to receive the encouragement from others outside of ourselves.
I sensed that not only was I struggling with the pace, but Dave seemed to have lost his climbing legs and was spending more time 3rd wheel. We were 66 miles out and I came to the conclusion that the pace was to much to sustain to the end. I drifted back next to Dave and shouted over the rushing sound of gravel under tires, “Dave were going to pop off if we keep this pace up, we can’t do this for 66 more miles”. He agreed, so I presented the scenario to Joe, he dismissed me quickly stating that he wanted the 24 hour mark. I reported to Dave that Joe wasn’t budging. Dave replied in a subdued manner, “Maybe it’s deal time?”. I surged back to Joe and told him that we would not contest him for the win. He had proven himself to be the strongest rider. Dave joined in, “It’s the honorable thing to do.” I watched as Joe absorbed the message. I could see him coming to terms with the win. The pace lightened and I reminded him that according to my math all we needed to do was average 15 mph and we’d crush the 24 hour barrier.
Suddenly, the silent killer (Joe) began chatting us up and allowing me to pull more often without replacing me with himself at the front after a mere minute or so. We all felt good about the decision. So goes the art of cycling. A sport unlike others that is capable of possessing a level of class and sportsmanship that causes men to swallow their egos and acknowledge the strongest. This moment crystallized for us all as our resolve to help each other strengthened. None would be left off the back from this point forward. The pace would accommodate when one suffered on a climb until the machine was back together. It was a scene I will never forget.
30 miles to go! 30 miles that we could do standing on our head at this point. My spirit lifted as I had felt decent for some time now and I was now juicing on pure adrenaline as the idea began to take root. We were winning the Trans Iowa! Dave Pramann and I exchanged a look, a smile, and a clasp of each other’s hand as we traded places in the line. No words were needed, we had done it! We had not only tamed the TI, but we had broken clear of the field, established a substantial lead, and were looking at the fastest completion of this race ever.
Without warning Joe grabbed his breaks at an intersection. He had emerged as our navigator and proven to be quite good at it. He announced, “This isn’t right.” It was like I had been punched in the stomach. We toiled in the dark trying to realize our error, but processing complicated information proved to be extremely difficult. At times we were all just looking at the cue sheets and road signs, but not doing anything to solve the problem.
The question arose of which way was north. I could help with this! I had a small bubble compass pinned to my camel back. “Hey guys I have a compass on my pack, look.” They wouldn’t acknowledge me. I tried again, nothing. They were identifying the north star. Why wouldn’t they just look at my compass? I chalked it up to delirium and let events unfold in front of me. In minutes it was clear we would be doubling back and it looked to be about 7 miles. This changed our mood drastically, but there would be no way around it. We began the correction, ultimately losing about 40 minutes. The 24 hour barrier would not be cracked this year.
Back on course nothing stood in our way. The miles were ticking off, but it got very cold. It was the kind of cold that got through your clothes and started to find it’s way into your bones. I wasn’t worried, I’d been cold before, I just had to keep moving forward. One more fuel up at a store in some small town and we’d be cruising in.
I remember thinking that this night will end. I tried to picture what the finish line would look like, how many people would be there. I hoped Amy would be there. I wondered if she’d been able to get information about our approximate finish. I thought of seeing her face when we rolled in. Eventually we hit the 6 mile straight stretch into the final turn. It was hard as pavement with very little loose rock. The terrain was made of gentle rollers that seemed to help us up the hills. We rode 3 abreast and chatted openly about what we wanted to eat and what we had done. There was some light congratulations and some commentary about new found strength directed my way. I attributed it to a recent ingestion of a gel pack and knowing that we were done.
We rose in unison as we approached the ups and sat down together on the summits. I noticed how we had become a synchronized unit, unflappable. I counted down the miles for the guys as we organized the look of our finish. We’d put Joe out front about 10 feet and Dave and I would roll in dead even behind him. 2nd place was discussed and it was agreed that together was best. Pramann and I had helped each other through tough times at different points and it didn’t seem right that one would be in front of the other. Side by side would be the way our finish would be, much the way the decision to make the jump for the leaders happened.
The finish confused me as no one seemed to be around. All was quiet and we saw no activity. We cleaned a “B” road and popped over a small rise. It was then that I spotted what I thought was a small head lamp in the distance, “there they are!”, I shouted. Just then I heard the same thing coming back in our direction. Suddenly a cow bell broke up the night, clapping, yelling, and cheering. We crossed the line just as planned. Once I turned around, I looked and immediately saw my wife, Amy running toward me with a smile from ear to ear. She was in my arms before I dismounted my bike.
The volunteers swarmed us with questions, pictures, and general attention. It was surreal, yet I remember every detail. It was after about 10 minutes of story telling that we were distracted by a slow, methodical clap that took over the scene. Soon all around us had picked up the trend. The three of us stood, eyes down, as we humbly accepted this acknowledgement. It was everything I could do not to start crying in front of all who looked on. We were three who shocked and surprised many who know cycling and all who know Trans Iowa. The 24 hour barrier may have eluded us, but a time of 24:52 will stand as the new record and that’s good enough for me.
I will hold and cherish the memories of the 2009 TI forever, some more than others. The horses that galloped only 15 feet away from us at sunset. The way my heart sank while I rode away from my good friend Charlie Farrow. The way my wife looked at me when I finished. The spiritual side of me knows that when my time is over I will be riding effortlessly through the rollers of Iowa . Thank you Trans., you’ll always have a place in my heart.
Thank you to Tifosi for keeping the glare down and rocks out. A special thanks to Motortabs for keeping the tank topped off and my head in the game. Also, Fluid recovery, without it I’m not sure I would have ever gotten out of that bed. Most of all, thank you to Evomo, the kit was outstanding and has me forever known as the “man in black”.